The Red and the Black | Study Guide


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The Red and the Black | Book 1, Chapters 1–5 | Summary



Chapter 1: A Small Town

The novel is told in third-person omniscient narration, in which the narrator sometimes refers to himself as "I" and sometimes refers to his readers as "you." The story begins in the mid to late 1820s in the small mountain town of Verrières, which has become prosperous since the fall of Napoleon, who was exiled from France in 1815. A fixture of the town is a nail factory owned by the mayor, M. de Rênal, a rich man who is about 50 years old and an ardent "Ultra," or far-right royalist who supports the Restoration and the current king, Charles X. The mayor has built a mansion surrounded by gardens, purchasing some of the land from a wily peasant, old Sorel. Because the transaction made him rich, old Sorel agreed to move his sawmill further down the river bank.

Chapter 2: A Mayor

The narrator points out the townspeople have the materialistic values of bourgeoisie (middle class). "To bring in money is the motive that rules everything in this little town you thought so pretty," he informs the reader. M. de Rênal angrily tells his wife M. Appert, a prison reformer and liberal, has come to town and looked over the prison, poor house, and charity hospital.

Chapter 3: The Welfare of the Poor

M. Chélan, the 80-year-old curé, or priest, has arranged Appert's visit. Both M. de Rênal and M. de Valenod, the poorhouse's director, are livid, and they go the priest's house to reprimand him. After M. de Rênal relays this dust-up to his wife, he tells her he plans to engage the peasant Julien Sorel, son of old Sorel, as a Latin tutor for their three sons. M. de Renal's motive is to outdo his social rival M. de Valenod, whose children have no tutors. Madame de Rênal, who is about 30, is naïve, beautiful but not conceited, and basically content in her role as the mayor's wife. Her husband bores her, but she doesn't think about it.

Chapter 4: Father and Son

Old Sorel works to squeeze the mayor when he learns he wants his son for a tutor. When he looks for Julien at the saw mill, he is reading a book instead of working, and Sorel beats him and knocks his favorite book, the memoirs of Napoleon, into the stream. Julien is almost 19; he has a slight frame, unlike his burly brothers, and a delicate and handsome face some call "pretty." An old Surgeon-major who fought with Napoleon took an interest in Julien, who is scorned by his whole family, and taught him some Latin and history. He also left him his library of about 40 books.

Chapter 5: A Negotiation

When Julien hears M. de Rênal's proposition from his father, he says he won't accept if he must eat with the servants. These pretensions of class he has picked up from reading Rousseau. The elder Sorel negotiates with M. de Rênal to get the dining concession and more money. Julien originally wanted to make his fortune as a soldier, but when he begins understanding politics, he stopped voicing his admiration of Napoleon. Church officials, not military men, appeared to have power, so he aspires to the priesthood. To win the approval Curé Chélan, he begins studying with him, applying his photographic memory to memorizing the Latin New Testament. This is how he has become a "Latinist." After he learns he has been appointed tutor, he enters the church to pray—quite a hypocritical act—and happens to see a scrap of newsprint that says, "Details of the execution and the last moments of Louis Jenrel, executed at Besaçom, on the ... " On the side he reads, "The first step." When he leaves the church, he thinks he sees blood next to the holy water basin but realizes it's just some spilled holy water—the light coming through the red window blinds give it the appearance of blood. He scolds himself for his fears and repeats the Napoleonic cry "To arms!"


In the first chapter the narrator establishes his tone, which ranges from playful and comic to sardonic and cynical. The narrator often passes judgment on his characters or suggesting possible outcomes, had the characters acted differently. At times, however, he withholds judgment after characters make contradictory statements. M. de Rênal, the town's mayor, styles himself as an Ultra, or Ultra-royalist, which means he belongs to the extreme right (conservative) party of the Royalist faction. After the French Revolution and following the reign of Napoleon and his eventual defeat and exile, the royal family of France has resumed power as the head of the government. While France has something of a constitutional monarchy, power is in the hands of the richest elements of society, including the aristocrats, and the Church. The novel takes place during the three or four years in which Charles X and his Ultra-royalist supporters have pulled back on democratic gains and the aristocrats and Roman Catholic clergy are at the height of their power in postrevolutionary France. However, the bourgeoisie, or middle class, is still jockeying for more power.

M. de Rênal is a tradesman of the middle class who, upon acquiring wealth, now seeks to identify himself with the upper classes. He and his rival, M. de Valenod, are furious because the reformer will no doubt discover Valenod lines his own pockets at the expense of the poor. This graft will also reflect badly on the mayor. The narrator makes fun of middle-class materialism and bourgeois pretentions to upward mobility when he says the mayor passes for the most aristocratic figure in town. There are no real aristocrats in the town—only bourgeois pretenders.

Julien Sorel is the son of a peasant, as he will later identify himself. His father is not a farmer, but rather a working-class carpenter who owns a lumber mill. Old Sorel becomes rich by tricking the mayor into giving him more money than his land is worth, and his values are not different from those of the middle class; his priority is "to bring in money." In many ways, Julien deviates from the world in which he grew up. Under the tutelage of the Surgeon-major, he finds a hero in Napoleon, a world conqueror, genius, humanitarian with egalitarian values—according to the biased account he has been reading. Spurned by his family, Julien wishes to get away from them. But Julien is no humanitarian: He is selfish and ambitious, anxious to obtain power and glory. He is willing to take bourgeois hypocrisy to its extreme, pretending to be devout because he sees the route to power is no longer in the armed forces—as it was in Napoleon's time—but the army of clerics running the Church. Here is one meaning of "the red and the black"—the red standing for the army and the black symbolizing the Roman Catholic Church.

Red stands for passion as well as blood. The scene in the church, in which Julien finds a scrap of paper about an execution, foreshadows his fate; he too will end up at Besaçom, a garrison town with a military presence, a seminary in which he studies, and a jail in which he will be held. The paper also says, "the first step," which symbolizes Julien's move into the Rênal household as his first step on the life path that ends in execution. Julien wishes to emulate Napoleon and works hard to preserve his honor, but he confuses honor with social recognition, and his vanity is a major theme in the novel. The holy water that appears to be to blood—a trick of the light—foreshadows the blood he spills to defend his honor as well as the blood he spills when executed.

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